Was Tutankhamun buried in the tomb of a queen?

One of the mysteries surrounding the tomb of Tutankhamun is the seemingly feminine appearance of the dead pharaoh. Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves believes there’s a simple explanation. The tomb was never meant for the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun but for a royal queen. It was built for the wife of the boy’s father – the pharaoh Akhenaten. That woman was none other than the iconic Egyptian queen: Nefertiti.

Reeves believes Tutankhamun’s death mask was originally for Nefertiti and then modified. The rich golden decorations in the tomb are representing Nefertiti and not Tutankhamun. The shape of the tomb is traditional for a queen and not a king. And the feminine representation of the boy – even with breasts on one statue – is because we’re looking at Nefertiti and not Tutankhamun.

There is a depiction of a living pharaoh opening the mouth of a recently deceased pharaoh to release their spirit and enable them to live eternally. The living ruler is thought to resemble the boy pharaoh whereas the dead ruler is more feminine than masculine. Is this Tutankhamun releasing the spirit of Nefertiti?

One problem with this. Nefertiti was never the pharaoh of Egypt. Well, that is a statement a growing number of commentators would challenge. They believe she ruled briefly between the death of Akhenaten and his son – who was her stepson.

Reeves even thinks her body could be somewhere in the tomb. But the Egyptian government is adamant that there are no hidden chambers to be found. Theories about what happened to Nefertiti after the death of her husband Akhenaten abound because of two apparent facts. Her body has not been found and she may have ruled after the death of her husband.

I say ‘apparent’ facts because there is a view that Nefertiti’s body was discovered and can be seen today in Cairo. And that in fact she did rule after the death of her husband Akhenaten. The tomb we attribute to Tutankhamun was actually built for her. That explains why when the boy pharaoh died suddenly, a richly decorated place of burial was ready for him. Because….it wasn’t originally for him at all!

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

The mystery of pharaoh Smenkhkare

After the death of Akhenaten, somebody called Smenkhkare took over. Very little is known about this person, so all kinds of theories have filled the gaps. One is that Smenkhkare was a male gay lover of Akhenaten. The other is that this mystery pharaoh was Nefertiti ruling under another name.

Or then we have view that Smenkhkare was indeed a woman – but not Nefertiti. In fact, the real identity are the two older sisters of Tutankhamun. What happened was that after the death of Akhenaten, his youngest surviving daughter Neferneferuaten took over disguised as a man. Her sister Meritaten adopted the role of royal spouse.

After a year, Meritaten decided that just being spouse wasn’t quite good enough – and proclaimed herself pharaoh as well. The two sisters effectively ruled as co-regents for their brother Tutankhamun who was still only four or five years old. This idea of joint rulership may have been inherited from their late father who had his wife Nefertiti depicted on almost equal terms with him. Something that no doubt disgusted traditional opinion in Ancient Egypt.

Should point out that Neferneferuaten wasn’t that much older than Tutankhamun. In fact, she was seven when she became pharaoh! So, what on earth was going on? The explanation given by one historian is that repeated outbreaks of plague spooked Akhenaten. He wanted to sort out the succession after his death.

Therefore, he himself married his eldest daughter, Meritaten. The next oldest daughter – Ankhesenpaaten – was married to Tutankhamun. And the seven-year-old Neferneferuaten was designated as the next pharaoh. Nefertiti never ruled because she was not of the royal bloodline.

Reeves believes that many of Tutankhamun’s burial goods were made for Neferneferuaten including his gold mask.

TO BE CONTINUED

Howard Carter – discoverer of Tutankhamun

Two men became global celebrities off the back of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Who were they and what motivated them? British archaeologist Howard Carter chanced upon the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. His financial backer was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a man whose personal history was stereotypically aristocratic.

Who was Lord Carnarvon?

Born in the posh district of Mayfair in London. Carnarvon’s father, the fourth Earl, was a Tory politician. The young Carnarvon went to Eton College and then to Trinity College Cambridge. He married a fabulously wealthy socialite who happened to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and he obligingly provided a massive dowry clearing his son-in-law’s gambling debts.

With no cash worries, Carnarvon was able to indulge his passion for horse racing and ancient Egypt. The concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings had become available. An American lawyer, Theodore Davis, had bought the concession back in 1902 and opened about thirty tombs. Davis was sure he’d “exhausted” all possibilities at this fascinating ancient necropolis. So, in 1914, Carnarvon stepped in.

Who was Howard Carter – the man who entered the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Carter was chosen to lead the new round of digging. Born in 1873, he had arrived in Egypt in 1890 aged 17 as a junior member of staff at the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). The EEF had only recently been set up – in 1882 – to explore and excavate ancient sites.

An agreement was reached with the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Department that allowed the EEF to export many of their finds subject to official approval. This led to thousands of Ancient Egyptian treasures making their way to Britain – legally at the time. The ethics of this has been questioned in recent years.

But it should be said that individuals were normally not allowed to keep artefacts. The EEF was supported by museums, universities and libraries who expected to be the beneficiaries.

Carter worked with the legendary Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) who brought some discipline into the cataloguing of finds and preservation of artefacts. It may be controversial to say this but in the late 19th century, sites were being plundered and monuments damaged at an alarming rate. Sadly, items like papyri were discarded as valueless by robbers and dealers preferring those things that glittered.

This was a fantastic apprenticeship for Carter who by 1900 became Inspector of Antiquities in Upper Egypt. This was a man steeped in Ancient Egyptian archaeology, but his lack of a university degree and lower middle-class background meant he was the subject of constant sneering from academia and respectable opinion. It may explain why he never received any honours for his work.

FIND OUT MORE: One hundred years since Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered

Making the discovery of a lifetime

Carter’s detractors must have felt vindicated when Carnarvon took him on and for the first few years, nothing showed up in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, it seemed, had been right. Everything that could be found – had been found. A restless Carnarvon began to wonder whether he was chucking good money after bad. And indicated to Carter and his team that the money tree would soon stop delivering.

Then, like in a movie with the clock ticking, Carter made his momentous discovery. With Carnarvon’s dire warning still ringing in his ears, Carter could hardly believe his luck when one of the team – a local boy – stumbled across steps in the sand. This was a clear sign that a new burial site had been found.

He wired his benefactor and Carnarvon made his way to the Valley of the Kings. When they opened the tomb, it was rather like a moment in one of those Mummy movies when a dreadful curse is unleashed. In Carter’s own words:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber caused the candle flame to flicker but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Behind him, Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything.

“Yes – wonderful things!”

Speaking of curses, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt and died of malaria shortly afterwards. Journalists piled in with talk of a “Mummy’s Curse”. And it was Carnarvon’s death that inspired a whole slew of trashy Hollywood movies on Ancient Egyptian mummies exacting a terrible revenge for being disturbed.

Entering the tomb had to be done in the presence of an official from the Department of Antiquities. But there’s every suggestion that Carnarvon, his wife, and Carter broke in, had a look around and then sealed it up again. Honestly – I find it hard to blame them!

Howard Carter and the find of a lifetime – the tomb of Tutankhamun

What was astonishing about the discovery of 5,000 items in the tomb including the intact and ornate sarcophagus of the pharaoh was that most royal burial sites were ransacked in ancient times. Often by the tomb builders themselves – who knew how to get in and out. Yet this one had been spared from the looters.

In a speech given the following year back in England, Carter showed kinematogrphic pictures of the dig to gasps from the audience. What intrigued them was the “domestic” nature of many of the artefacts. This led Carter to comment that:

“Tutankhamun’s tastes might have been those of an average young Egyptian nobleman rather than of a royal prince. Domestic affection was suggested, rather than religious austerity that characterised other tombs.”

When Carnarvon and the Antiquities director entered the tomb, Carter had a portable electric light with a cable trailing out behind him. The sight of the pharaoh’s mask was incredibly moving for all present. But what took them by surprise was another inner chamber containing some of the greatest and most exquisite treasures.

TO BE CONTINUED

Centenary of the Tutankhamun discovery!

2022 will be a momentous year for all things Ancient Egypt related. It’s one hundred years since the discovery of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. And it’s 200 years since the Rosetta Stone was deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion. Both events have left a bitter-sweet legacy in today’s Egypt.

Because they are milestones in what was a period of European domination in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone was discovered during the French Emperor Napoleon’s military campaign in the country in July 1799 and then fell into British hands under the terms of France’s surrender to British and Ottoman forces at Alexandria in 1801. Champollion wasn’t part of Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition, but he deciphered the hieroglyphic script of the pharaohs in 1822 – revealing the meaning on the stone.

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

British control of Egypt

Egypt came increasingly under British control. In 1882, British forces invaded and in 1899, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement led to Egypt being jointly governed by local rulers and the United Kingdom. So, it’s unsurprising that the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened by a British-led archaeological team in 1922. Even if that was the year in which Egypt won a degree of independence from Britain when Sultan Fuad took the title, King of Egypt.

In the years before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the concession rights for digging in the Valley of the Kings had been held by an American lawyer, Theodore Davis. He had bought the concession from the Department of Antiquities in Egypt. From 1902 to 1915, he discovered about thirty tombs and then declared that the valley had been “exhausted” with nothing more to uncover. But he had missed the tomb of Tutankhamun – the greatest glory of Ancient Egypt.

FIND OUT MORE: Grave robbers through the centuries!

French control of digs in Egypt

The Department of Antiquities – which reported to the Egyptian government and from which Dyas bought his concession – was established and run by French archaeologists from 1858 to 1952. It was the forerunner of today’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Despite Britain dominating Egypt militarily and politically, the French somehow managed to run the archaeology side of things to the profound irritation of British and German Egyptologists – who struggled to get a look in.

On the plus side, the Department managed to stop the wholesale looting of tombs and sites and recovered many royal mummies. There are claims that two local dealers who were brothers were tortured under the direction of the Department to reveal the whereabouts. Sadly, even though these mummies were recovered, many scarabs, statuettes and papyri had disappeared into the illegal antiquities markets.

EXCLUSIVE: Ancient Egyptian spoons!

Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

From 1899, the future discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun – Howard Carter – was the Inspector of Monuments in Egypt having worked on several digs including the exploration of Amarna – former capital of the monotheistic pharaoh, Akhenaten. This strange and charismatic ruler introduced a one-God cult based at his new city of Amarna that offended traditional religious opinion and power in Ancient Egypt. He was eventually overthrown by conservative forces.

Akhenaten’s successor was his (likely) son Tutankhamun. It seems prescient that Carter would work on this project uncovering the secrets of the father of the pharaoh that would make him a global archaeological superstar.

In the next few blog posts celebrating the Tutankhamun tomb discovery centenary – we’re going to look at this story of Howard Carter, the greatest tomb in Ancient Egypt and the worldwide sensation its discovery caused.

TO BE CONTINUED

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into the Holy Land. The bible acknowledges that Moses was born and raised an Egyptian in elite circles. But some have wondered whether he rose to the very top and was indeed the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Indulge me for a moment!

This is an intriguing theory about an enigmatic pharaoh who rejected the Gods of ancient Egypt and established a monotheist (one-God) cult around the Sun. Or the Aten to be more precise.

Some, even in academia, have argued that this one-God worshipping king of Egypt may have either been Moses or inspired him in some way. The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, even believed that Moses had been a priest in the cult of the Aten who had to flee with his other believers when the old religion was restored and Akhenaten overthrown.

Akhenaten (or Moses if you prefer!) was famously married to the incredible Nefertiti whose beautiful bust is displayed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Their depictions are almost touchingly domestic with the queen tending the children while Akhenaten sits nearby.

I was at the Neues Museum just a fortnight before it closed because of the Coronavirus. And I filmed some of the very distinctive artwork that was created under Akhenaten. It’s almost like the artist’s rule book was thrown out under his reign and new styles developed – reflecting his revolution in religion.

You’re not allowed to take photos or film the Nefertiti bust but I found an unfinished bust dating back over three thousand years. In some ways, this object was more alluring because you could see the artist’s smudges and tracing. Enjoy the little film I made below because it may be a long time before any of us get to see these treasures again.

One key difference between Akhenaten and Moses is, of course, that we know for 100% certainty that Akhenaten existed. We have his statues, his mummy (vandalised after death) and cartouches. Of Moses, we have the story but no confirmed grave or contemporary images.